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Second Amendment foes often claim they are looking for “common sense” restrictions and infringements on the right to keep and bear arms. But what passes for common sense often turns out to be the purest nonsense.
Over the past few months I’ve been exploring some of the stupid gun laws already on the books – laws that have been around long enough to be just part of the background. But when we dig into them, it turns out that they are “common nonsense.”
Most Americans perceive a silencer as a tool used by spies and mafia hit men to commit stealthy murders. That idea stems from fiction in books and movies. Although suppressors are simple and inexpensive to construct, their use in crime is so rare as to be non-existent. Even so, the penalty for possession of an unregistered silencer in the U.S. is up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. This in spite of the fact that in many places around the world a silencer (or suppressor as they are called by aficionados) is considered just good manners. Indeed, in many countries the use of a suppressor is mandatory for hunting and most other shooting, just as mufflers are required on cars and motorcycles.
Under current U.S. law, silencers are treated exactly the same as machineguns. Their manufacture is tightly regulated, and buying one requires payment of a special tax, a thorough background investigation and permission from the local sheriff or chief of police. Further, every part of a silencer is legally considered to be a silencer itself. So just possessing a single baffle (basically a washer) from a silencer is a federal felony carrying the same 10-year, $10,000 penalty.
All of this seems a bit harsh for possession of something which can be easily constructed from a plastic soda bottle and a bit of tape – or a fluffy pillow. The majority of the noise of a firearm comes from the gasses exploding out of the muzzle right behind the bullet. A suppressor simply captures that gas and gives it room to expand in a controlled environment. A 2-liter plastic soda bottle works very well for the first few shots until the shock-wave causes the bottle to fall apart, letting the gas – and the noise – out.
This being the case, if you were to drill a hole in the cap of a soda bottle so that it could fit tightly over the barrel of a gun, that bottle cap and any bottles you have could be designated as silencers by the ATF and you could face a felony count for each bottle and one for the cap. Adapters that allowed a bottle to be attached to a gun’s muzzle were available for order from the back pages of gun magazines in the early 1980s. A friend of mine made a similar adapter – basically just a metal bottle cap threaded to be screwed onto the barrel of one of his guns – just so he could demonstrate the soda bottle silencer to skeptical friends. In order to be legal, he had to engrave a serial number on the special bottle cap and paid a $200 tax to get permission to make the thing. He never was able to get a straight answer from ATF regarding the legal status of the soda bottles before and after he attached them to the gun, so even after paying the tax and filling out all of the forms he ran a risk of being prosecuted for having unregistered soda bottles in his house.
Any device that is designed or intended to reduce the noise of a firearm is itself considered a (restricted) firearm as are any part or parts of such a device – all because some politicians believed what they read in Mickey Spillane novels or watched too much James Bond and couldn’t figure out what legitimate purpose a silencer could have.
Once the ignorant politicians passed their ill-conceived law, the bureaucrats got busy refining definitions and expanding their own authority. Today, as plastic suppressors with felt baffles are gaining popularity with air-gun shooters, the ATF has decreed that these devices could be attached to firearms and are therefore silencers – even though live ammo would quickly destroy them.
A Massachusetts man named Michael Crooker learned about this the hard way when he was arrested in 2004 and convicted in 2006 of unlawful possession of a silencer and related charges. He built the silencer for an air rifle and shipped the rifle and muffler to a buyer in Ohio, but the shipment was intercepted by authorities. Crooker was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Last year, after 6 years behind bars, Crooker won his appeal of the decision, but he was not immediately released because a new charge had been brought against him – possession of ingredients to make weapons of mass destruction. It seems that when authorities searched Crooker’s home during the 2004 silencer investigation they found some castor beans and rosary peas, common legumes from which the poisons ricin and abrin can be derived. Can there be any doubt that something is terribly wrong with our “justice” system?
Back to silencers: Hearing damage is the most common long-term injury to our soldiers, and it is a much too common disability among shooters and hunters. Firing in indoor ranges and facilities with sound baffles designed to contain the noise so as not to disturb the neighbors exposes shooters to even higher noise levels. Wearing traditional hearing protection such as plugs and muffs makes it difficult to hear other things such as game (or enemies) in the field or important range commands. Suppressors can help dramatically in all of these areas and also reduce the concerns of rural residents who are disturbed by the noise of their neighbors taking target practice on a Saturday afternoon.
Suppressors also make teaching gun handling and range safety much easier and safer since the students don’t have to have their ears plugged and can hear what the instructor is saying.
Of all of the stupid gun laws on the books, laws restricting silencers are among the stupidest. The cliché says, “Silence is golden,” but in the U.S. today silence is a felony. That’s just nonsense.